The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an excellent movie, because it serves a core purpose of cinema: it entertains and moves the audience. There are plenty of flaws and as many plot holes and weaknesses as the old hotel itself, however there is a heart to be found in this well-acted and tender story.
The plot revolves around the adventures of seven British retirees who move to India to live in a hotel for the “Elderly and Beautiful”, run by Sonny, a young Indian whose dream is to “outsource old age”. These premises – which intelligently imply the lack of support both in an emotional and an economic level towards older people in western countries – allow for the development of a series of personal stories that are both charming and moving.
Even though the prominent role of older people may suggest a concentration on topics of life and death, the movie explores issues of sexuality, social positioning, dreams, aspirations, racism, abandonment and self-awareness. Of course, the most prominent selling point of the movie is the actors involved: Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup. They all give a different quality to the movie and turn it from an old-age rom-com to a portrayal of life after retirement.
On the other hand, the majority of Indian characters are quite stereotypical: the happy-go-lucky Indian boy who has a big plan and a beautiful girlfriend (Dev Patel), the girlfriend who works in a call centre and has an authoritative brother and the boy’s mother-monster with tender heart who tries to impose her will on her son (a stereotype which makes all Indian mothers seem more frightening than Tasso Kavadia). Nevertheless, it includes something rarely seen in Western movies, sexual relations between native youth involved in a romantic relationship.
(SPOILER ALERT) There is, also, a prominent exception in the stereotypical representation of the Indians, which works very well within a movie that consciously tries to normalize situations that otherwise would have been treated as extraordinary. Graham’s (Tom Wilkinson) storyline presented him as a retired judge who wants to go back to make amends with his past. When he was very young, he had an affair with an Indian boy. The relationship ended after they got caught sleeping together. He was sent abroad and was always afraid that this event would have destroyed his lover’s life. However, when they meet, the man tells him that he had a good life. His wife is also aware of the incident. Afterwards, the wife not only allows her husband to assist in the Hindu funeral of Graham, but she also accompanies him and supports him. The reaction of these characters challenges many persisting perceptions regarding non-Westerns that are constantly repeated in movies (most recently in “Eat, Pray, Love”). There is traditionally a connection between education, dignity and insightfulness which, as proven by the reactions of the man’s wife, is erroneous and just reflects western self-importance. (END OF SPOILER)
The other actor in the film, India itself, is beautiful as always, even though it serves as the stereotypical foreign paradise: poorer, dirtier, with “innocent and good-hearted” people, strange smells and beautiful sunsets. It is also the other selling point of the film, a promise of exoticism to an audience thirsty for a cost-free escape from the gray of the big Western metropolis. It also reproduces another stereotypical functioning of India in movies, that of an educator that offers Hinduism, temples and a different outlook to life. The heroes go there and learn more about themselves and the world (the other stereotypical functioning of India which was wisely avoided was that of the receiver of Western charity). It does, however, go further and shows the interior of companies, the new buildings next to the old, the desire to grow and develop, which, in its own way, is a positive element.
Despite these weaknesses though, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a genuinely beautiful, funny and heart-warming film. The dialogues are witty and at times hilarious, the acting is spot-on and the situations depicted are presented as natural, everyday events. Thomas Newman’s music also adds vivid colours to the scenes. It is a movie that is truly worth watching. It is also an opportunity to see how older people see themselves as complex human beings with needs and desire, a viewpoint that they beg for the rest of the society to adopt and abandon the old notion of older people as positioned one step away from their deathbed. As a lady told me after the end of a screening: “they should produce more movies like this about us the grey-haired”.